TAMPA — When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded down a few spots to select safety Mark Barron in the first round of the 2012 draft, they knew they were adding a hard-hitting player who would make an impact near the line of scrimmage.
What they and rival scouts weren’t sure of was just how much of an impact, if any, Barron would make when forced to cover tight ends and receivers in the deep half of the secondary, where safeties normally roam.
More than a year later, the Bucs are quickly erasing any concerns they might have had a about Barron’s coverage skills. In fact, they’re beginning to realize he might be a more complete player than they first thought.
“Sometimes, when you’re big and physical, they say, ‘You can’t play the deep ball,’ ” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said when asked about Barron’s progress as a pass defender. “But he can. He’s gifted that way.
“Mark’s got all the makings of an elite guy. I think just time and reps is going to be the only thing (that stands) between him (becoming an) elite (player) — that and staying healthy.’’
Barron has certainly had a healthy impact on the Bucs’ defense. He will go into today’s game against the Eagles with a team-leading 30 tackles, including one for a loss and a quarterback sack.
The Bucs aren’t surprised by that. Their intention all along was to have Barron play a role similar to that once played by Bucs great John Lynch, who often served as an extra linebacker near the line of scrimmage.
“He’s a natural at that,’’ Schiano said of working Barron as an extra linebacker on obvious passing downs. “He plays very well as a run-support safety, but he’s a much better deep defender than people give him credit for.”
Barron’s speed is one of the things that’s helping him excel on the back end. Though he ran a moderately fast 4.56-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine two years ago, his speed has proved to be a valuable weapon.
“I think the biggest thing — and it’s really just shown itself here in the last month — is his ability to close guys down in the open field,’’ Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. “He has the straight-line speed to just walk a guy down and put him on the ground a lot faster than a lot of other guys would be able to do. That’s been a pleasant surprise.’’
One thing the Bucs aren’t surprised by is Barron’s versatility. He has the ability to play the pass as well as he does the run, but what has surprised the Bucs is the speed at which Barron has become an all-around player.
“He’s been outstanding, especially on third down and (in) the dime linebacker position, covering guys out of the backfield and covering tight ends,’’ Sheridan said.
“And he’s got a great knack of timing up the ball at the reception point and what we call ‘gloving it out’ or knocking it out with his off arm as he secures the receiver with leverage with his other arm.
“I know he was taught that, and was taught that well in college (at Alabama), and he’s able to do it because he’s quick enough to close on guys and get close enough when the ball gets there that he can knock it out.’’
Those skills first became noticeable in Week 2 this year when Barron found himself defending Saints running back Darren Sproles, who caught six passes against the Bucs but, thanks in part to Barron, gained only 36 receiving yards.
“That’s one of the hardest things for any defensive player to do,’’ Barron said of covering Sproles. “I mean, he’s known as one of the best, and the fact that I was able to cover him, that reflects (well) on me.’’
The Bucs don’t disagree.